Craft Note: The Aubade: Poem of Beginnings

Jake Adam York
March 11, 2012
Comments 3

This is the first in a series of craft notes, developed in a conversation between me and Tarfia Faizullah who will join me at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop (seats still available!). These notes will preview some of the issues we want to discuss on the workshop I’ll lead with Tarfia’s help and perhaps also open a window onto the world of the KR Writer’s Workshop, for those who’ve thought about attending.

Tarfia and I are going to be discussing poetic genres as kinds of poetic games. Next week we’ll talk about the elegy, but we’re beginning with the aubade, which seems appropriate. The aubade is a poem of the morning, of sun-up—though it’s also a poem of endings, traditionally presenting a farewell, from one lover to another, as one departs before the light catches them together. Since aubades both open and close, these poems seem capable of great depth or complexity of emotion—and they offer many opportunities for innovation.

I became interested years ago in the idea of the aubade, in the sense of a beginning that is also an ending, and wondered if I could write an aubade that was set at night. The poem I wrote, which took me years to finish to my satisfaction, never made it into any of my books, though it’s still one of my favorites. And I’m playing with a similar idea in a short series of poems in my next book Abide.

Tarfia, you’ve written a number of aubades. What brought you to this form? How did you learn about it?

TF: It’s interesting that the first aubade you wrote took you so many years to complete – that is true of the first aubade I ever wrote as well.

The poem, in its early versions, was written around a glow-in-the-dark star I had pasted onto the blade of the ceiling fan in my bedroom. Nightly, during the month of Ramadan, especially, I was drawn in to the strange whirl of light it created, as well as the daily rituals of hunger Ramadan demands. The poem, originally composed in a looser, narrative voice, went through many years of frustrated revising until I read Lynda Hull’s “Aubade.” Hull’s intensely detailed observations brought those rituals of hunger into sharp imagistic focus for me. In the month of Ramadan, any sort of consumption is disallowed before daylight. It dawned (haha) on me, that Ramadan is a month of daily aubades, of uncoupling from the needs and longing of the physical and entering into daylight’s many hours of hunger. This realization helped push the poem into its final shape.

JY: Yes, the aubade seems concerned with preparation. In my “Aubade,” I worked hard to get the sentence to seem to stretch longer and longer toward the end of the poem—is this a version of the love-lorn’s longing?—as the boy tries to hear things that are further and further away, as if the sentence were preparing itself for the revelation the boy prays for.

Are we just talking about the qualities, the feel of the aubade here, or does the aubade have a form?

TF: As you’ve already noted, Jake, an aubade commemorates daybreak, even as it mourns the separation of lovers before dawn. Though certainly not a requirement, many aubades I have read tend towards the meditative: perhaps because an aubade is a lonely poem, one written from a place of isolated longing, of marked solitude away from the beloved, whatever or whomever that figure may be. What is truly compelling about the aubade, however, is its myriad possibilities. Philip Larkin’s famous Aubade, for example, with its terse, livid commandments, is so different from Oliver de La Paz’s “Aubade with a Book and the Rattle from a String of Pearls” and its tender incantations.

JY: The meditation is one of those forms (for the scholars, I know it’s actually a “mode”) that seems formless to so many people, but the meditation is a distinct kind of poem. We’ll talk a bit more about this in a future post, but I admire the way a meditation takes an object or an idea as its initiating focus before branching out, whether through extension or distraction, toward what Richard Hugo might have called the poem’s “true subject.” As a poem of the morning or the daybreak, the aubade seems well suited for the meditation in that by the time you know the sun is coming, you know you’re in a moment distinct from the night (and so you have a kind of focus, a temporal one), but a moment that will end, imminently, meaning a new subject can arrive.

For me, the definiteness of that moment makes the aubade a great poem for improvisation: you can always begin with your awareness that this moment will end and then riff—through description or association or whatever—until the sun is up to call it quits. It’s like a timed freewrite.

Tarfia, what are you able to do with the form you can’t do as easily without it?

TF: The aubade offers a particular kind of entry into the personal and the historical. For many years after the death of my sister at a young age, daybreak was the time of day I felt I could be the most vulnerable, the most willing to acknowledge her passing as well as my own grief: a silent, liminal space between day and night during which my longing for her was permitted.

Similarly, during my time in Bangladesh interviewing Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers in 1971, daybreak was one of the few times the capital city of Dhaka was, for the most part, utterly silent.

It continues to be the time of day when I write the most without self-censoring. It is also the time of day in which, I noticed, many people quietly make preparations for the coming day: a pocket of time unlike any other.  It makes sense that the aubade is a form you and I and other poets continue to return to, again and again: the first crowning of light across the dark horizon is a rich border worth dwelling in.

JY: Morning is, for me, too, the time of day when I write without editing. My editing brain hasn’t woken up yet, so I can get some fresh language on the page that my afternoon self would cross out in a second.

I think this struggle between the writing/creating self and the editing/evaluating self is one a lot of writers feel, and this is why I think we’ll begin our workshop with an aubade—or something like O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, where the poem is made out of whatever is possible within a unit of time, which is really a way of reminding ourselves that a poem is an act of attention.


An off-the-cuff reading list:


Aubades by Tarfia Faizullah:






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